The Veil of Love: Schopenhauer and the Upaniṣads

Schopenhauer's Compass

A month ago I gave a talk to a group of philosophers who had gathered for an Open University research day. My paper was an attempt to analyze, using some conceptual tools from contemporary analytic philosophy, the Buddha’s second noble truth, that desire is the cause of suffering. In this course of giving this talk I said that we should distinguish the Buddhist concept of taṇhā, translated ‘craving’ or ‘desire’, from more metaphysical concepts such as Plato’s eros or ‘passionate love’, Freud’s libido or ‘sexual desire’ and Schopenhauer’s Wille or ‘will’. I wanted to argue that the Buddhist concept was quite a practical one – pointing to the fact that certain kinds of desire, the ones that involve an ego or self who tries to appropriate the object of desire, always run the risk of frustration, and such frustrated appropriative desires are certainly a kind suffering. I wanted to use Epicurus’ very practical distinction of kinds of desire to show what the Buddha might have meant, in line with my recent interest in Epicurean philosophy as a way of life. But one of my philosophical colleagues thought I had mis-represented Schopenhauer, whose metaphysics of suffering and will was in fact, he thought, not much different from the Buddhist account I had given. So had I got done Schopenhauer a dis-service? Had I unfairly mis-represented him as explaining his pessimistic view of life as suffering through a quite speculative metaphysics of will? How did his thought relate to Buddhism?

Rather than re-reading The World as Will and Representation,[i] which is very long, and re-visiting where I stood in relation to what Schopenhauer writes there in his main work, I looked at a new book by Schopenhauer scholar Urs App called Schopenhauer’s Compass,[ii] which explores how Schopenhauer’s engagement with Indian thought informed the development of his metaphysics of will; of how the universe as it appears to us is the diversified manifestation of an underlying reality, which somehow wants to become diversity and multiplicity. The book turns out to be so good that I wanted to write about it.

It’s a book of what one might call ‘philosophical scholarship’ – not in itself a philosophical engagement with Schopenhauer, but rather a carefully researched account of where his philosophical views came from. The book’s thesis is that Schopenhauer’s metaphysics of will come from his reading of the Oupnek’hat, a late 18th-century translation into Latin of a 16th-century translation into Persian of the Sanskrit Upaniṣads. It is well-known that Schopenhauer was a devotee of this version of the Upaniṣads, but it seems that nobody up until now had studied its very particular foibles, nor the very many markings and annotations he made on his copy of the Oupnek’hat. App’s study of all this is a revelation.

Up until 1814, Schopenhauer had not yet formulated the fundamental idea of his philosophy. He had found many clues in the mystical theology of Jacob Böhme, and in the philosophy of Schelling. He wrote his doctoral dissertation, on The Fourfold Root of the Principle of Sufficient Reason, in 1813. Then, on 26 March 1814, Schopenhauer borrowed the two volumes of the Oupnek’hat from a library in Weimar (he later bought his own copy and wrote all over it – always a good sign). From the present point of view, the Oupnek’hat is a very bad translation of the Upaniṣads, not just because it came via Persian into Latin, but also because it introduces ideas which don’t belong to the original. But it’s also an example of a ‘creative mis-translation’, whose very mistakes became the seeds of Schopenhauer’s own forming vision.

The central message of the Upaniṣads themselves is that there is an essence of consciousness, called the Self (ātman), which in its essence is identical with the essence of reality, which is called Brahman. Hence, ‘you are that’ (tat tvam asi). The Upaniṣads were set down in Sanskrit and are regarded among Hindus as preserving the final teaching of the Vedas (hence they were called Vedānta, ‘end of the Vedas). Meanwhile, Prince Dara was the eldest son of the 16th c. Moghul emperor Shah Jahan (who built the Taj Mahal as a tomb for his beloved wife Mumtaz Mahal). Prince Dara was a Sufi, of a universalist and mystical bent, and gathered Sanskrit scholars to help him translate the Upaniṣads into Persian (the language of the rulers), which he published as Sirr-i Akbar (The Secret of God). Prince Dara, however, added some commentary, which interpreted the essence of the Vedas in terms of Sufi mysticism. Two novel interpretations stand out in Dara’s commentary.

First, he translated the concept of maya or ‘illusion’ as ishq or ‘love’. The term maya, as it is used in Advaita Vedānta to interpret the Upaniṣads, names the result of the superimposition of desire out of ignorance onto the unity of brahman, to create the familiar appearance of multiplicity. The term ishq, in Sufism, points to the mysterious way the unity of God becomes, through emanation, the multiplicity of creation. The concept of ishq was itself the result of the Sufi theologian Ibn-Arabi’s incorporation of Neoplatonic ideas about the emanation of the world from the One, which had by the 16th c. become part of Sufi thought in India. Second, Prince Dara understood the return to brahman, the lifting of the veil of maya, which is everywhere the aim of the Upaniṣadic sages, in terms of fanā, the self-annihilation of the ego in Sufi mysticism, and of the realisation of tauḥīd or divine One-ness. Hence the Persian version was already quite a work of cultural translation.

Abraham Hyacinthe Anquetil-Duperron was one of the first European ‘orientalists’; his translation of Prince Dara’s Persian translation of the Upaniṣads into Latin as Oupnek’hat was his main contribution. But not only did he not distinguish in his text between the translations of the Upaniṣads themselves and translations of Prince Dara’s commentary upon them, but he also added a huge amount of his own commentary and interpretation. So this was what Schopenhauer encountered in 1814: what sounds like a mash-up of Upaniṣadic thought and Sufi mysticism in a translation steeped in Neoplatonism. Late in life the philosopher was to write:

“How entirely does the Oupnekhat breathe throughout the holy spirit of the Vedas! How is everyone who by a diligent study of its Persian Latin has become familiar with that incomparable book, stirred by that spirit to the very depth of his soul!”[iii]

And in his philosophical notebooks from 1816, just before composing The World as Will and Representation, Schopenhauer wrote:

“I confess that I do not believe that my teaching could ever have come into being before the Upanishads, Plato and Kant cast their rays simultaneously into one man’s mind.”[iv]

From Kant’s philosophy, Schopenhauer derived the basic critical framework for his ‘transcendental idealism’ and for the distinction of a world of objects and appearances (or ‘representations’, Vorstellungen) from a world of things-in-themselves, as they exist independently of subjects. From Plato, Schopenhauer took the concept of the Ideas or Forms, those archetypes of experience such as goodness, truth and beauty, which are like doorways from the world of multiplicity into the reality behind it. And in the Oupnek’hat, Schopenhauer discovered an account (which he believed to be extremely ancient and an authentic expression of Vedic thought) of the way this world of appearance has manifested – as that love (ishq) or will which is the world of illusion (maya) we take to be real. And (according to Schopenhauer) it is through the self-negating of the will (through participation in art, through the ethics of compassion, and through mystical vision), a seeing-through of the ego, that there is some access to truth, and there is salvation for humanity.

Such is the background to Schopenhauer’s metaphysics of will as sketched out by App in Schopenhauer’s Compass. One pole of the compass points south, to appearance, to illusion and to will; the other pole points north, to reality, wisdom and the quieting of the will. What Schopenhauer meant by ‘will’ is not really there in the Sanskrit Upaniṣads, nor in Sufism, nor in Neoplatonism, but is rather part of Schopenhauer’s own visionary metaphysics. But Schopenhauer’s vision depended, in its actual genesis at least, upon this particular encounter with a bad Latin version of a Persian Sufi interpretation of the Upaniṣads. Thus from great mistakes does the creative mind leap. It is tempting to think of Schopenhauer’s devotion to the Oupnek’hat as another symptom of the veil of love.

Urs App tells this whole story with economy, precision and enough sympathy and depth to draw the reader in. The book is also an excellent introduction to Schopenauer’s philosophy, for a certain sort of person, who likes to mix their philosophy with a little Indian wisdom and a lot of mysticism. Going back now to my philosophy talk in Milton Keynes back in July, another comment made in response to what I said about the Buddha’s second noble truth, that desire is the cause of suffering, was that my attempt to analyze the Buddha’s teaching in a very practical and empirical way had its limits. Given that the life of desire goes so deep in human experience, the kind of transformation of desire that the Buddha recommends does seem to need some kind of metaphysics, some account of what is going on in the experience of desire, and how it is connected with life, sex and the universe. I am not sure I believe that Schopenauer’s metaphysics of will is exactly what the Buddha had in mind when he said that desire was the cause of suffering; but I am beginning to think that there is more room for visionary metaphysics in my account of Buddhism than I had previously supposed.

[i] The new translation of The World as Will and Representation, by Judith Norman and Alistair Welchman, edited Christopher Janaway, published by Cambridge University Press, 2010, is standard. But there is a nice abridged version, The World as Will and Idea, translated by Jill Berman, published in the Everyman library by Dent, 1995.

[ii] Urs App, Schopenhauer’s Compass, University Media, Wil (Switzerland), 2014.

[iii] From Schopenhauer’s collection of essays, Parerga and Paralipomena, §184, in App, Schopenhauer’s Compass, p.4.

[iv] Also from Schopenhauer’s Compass, p.4.

The Brexit: a pseudo-Socratic dialogue

The Brexita pseudo-Socratic dialogue about democracy and reason

CharactersGrexit: an Athenian, friend of Socrates; Brexit: friend of Grexit, a foreigner; and Socrates, returning from the gymnasium.


Grexit: Hello, Socrates! I might have guessed we’d meet you here in the Agora. Anyway, I was hoping to bump into you. Let me introduce my friend Brexit. He and I were just discussing a referendum result in his city. His people have voted, by a narrow majority, to leave the Spartan League. Brexit wants this as well, but the city and its leaders are in complete disharmony about it all. We were wondering what the right thing for Brexit and his fellow citizens to do in the circumstances, and we thought you might be able to help us think it through.

Socrates: Well, Brexit, I don’t know why you are asking me, as I know nothing about politics. But, I have to say, I was surprised to hear that your city voted to leave the League. Surely it was a source of unity among previously warring city-states and a means of encouraging trade and prosperity for you all?

Brexit: Socrates, don’t say you are a supporter of our staying in the League!

Socrates: Nothing of the sort, Brexit; I was simply reporting what I have heard from others. Here in Athens, the Spartan League is held up as something of a model.

Brexit: You Athenians have no idea. Anyway, the votes have been counted and the people have decided to leave. Doesn’t that mean that our leaders should now change the law?

Socrates: That assumes that your government has an obligation to do what its people say.

Brexit: Of course! You’re not an opponent of democracy are you, Socrates?

Socrates: As far as I know, democracy is the least bad form of government, so, no, I am not its opponent. But can I ask you a question? Why is your city now leaving the League? What reason would you give for this decision?

Brexit: That’s a straightforward question, Socrates. 52% of us voted to leave the League; that’s the reason we’re leaving.

Grexit: Is that true, Brexit? You told me that 52% of the 72% of those registered to vote wanted to leave, which is 37% of the citizens, many of whom did not make their opinion known.

Socrates: If only 37% voted to leave the League, Brexit, then it would appear that not even a majority of you want this result. So I don’t think that this explains why you think the city’s leaders must now change the law.

Brexit: No, no, Socrates; that is not how our democracy works. If people don’t vote, that is their own choice. The government meanwhile has to abide by the result, which in this case was clear. It is the will of the people to leave the League.

Socrates: I’m surprised to hear you say that, Brexit. If there is any such thing as a ‘will of the people’, it is a confused faculty indeed, since it is 37% in favour of leaving the League, 35% against doing so, and 28% unsure. It is like three horses tied together, one pulling in one direction, one in another, and one not sure where to pull. If my physics is correct, Brexit, such an assembly of strength would not move.

Brexit: Surely the strongest beast would pull the other two in its preferred direction?

Socrates: The strength of the 73% who wish to stay or are unsure should be combined against the 37% who wish to leave. Since 73% is the larger amount, the horse that wants to leave will not be able to shift the horses of staying. The ‘will of the people’ is not going anywhere, my friend.

Brexit: You can’t fool me so easily, Socrates! Obviously your horses are just an analogy, and arguments from analogy, as every student of philosophy knows, can be misleading.

Socrates: I’m sure you’re right, Brexit. So let me try again. The three of us stood here talking – are we one will, or three?

Brexit: Why, three, of course.

Socrates: And the people of your city – are they totally different from us, being one will instead of many?

Brexit: No, no, Socrates. They do not literally have ‘one will’ – it is a figure of speech.

Socrates: So really they have many wills? They are like us three, each citizen having his or her own will?

Brexit: That’s right, Socrates. Each of us came to our own decision, to leave the League, to stay, or not to vote at all.

Socrates: If you each came to your own decision, please answer me this: did those of you who voted to leave the League all have the same reason for your decision, or did you have different reasons?

Brexit: That’s a difficult question to answer, Socrates. I can only guess at my fellow-citizens’ thinking.

Grexit: I have heard it said that many people who voted to leave did so because they think that too many foreigners have come to live and work among them. You yourself told me, Brexit, that this was also among your reasons for voting to leave.

Brexit: It is true that many of us hold this view, yes.

Socrates: Are you sure, Brexit, that leaving the League will reduce the number of foreigners coming to live in your city? Surely it is simply a reality of life in the civilized world that people move around in search of peace and prosperity for themselves and their families. If your city leaves the League, would you be able to stop this ceaseless movement?

Brexit: We have to do something, Socrates. Too many foreigners wish to live with us. Leaving the League will give us control over our borders, and that is sure to help.

Socrates: I asked you the reason for your city’s decision to leave the League, and you have told me that there is no single reason, but that one reason that many of you would give, when asked, is that leaving the League might help you reduce the numbers of foreigners coming to live with you. Is that correct?

Brexit: That’s correct, Socrates.

Socrates: And this reason follows from the connection between leaving the League and being able to control your borders, is that correct?

Brexit: Quite so.

Socrates: Now, Brexit, do all the citizens of your city share this thinking, that the way to reduce the number of foreigners coming to your city is to leave the League, because doing so would enable you to control your borders?

Brexit: Unfortunately, not at all Socrates. Many of my fellow citizens hold completely different views.

Socrates: So I asked for the reason that your city wishes to leave the League, and you have given me one reason that some of you hold, but it seems that not only are you not sure who holds this view and who does not, but you are certain that only a minority of citizens hold it. Surely in these circumstances it is no surprise that there is widespread disagreement about what your city should do. Brexit, is it possible for anyone to be sure that they are making the right decision if they cannot give a reason for it?

Brexit: I am beginning to see why you are so irritating Socrates! But never mind all your talk of reasons. That is quite beside the point. The result of the referendum of my city is clearly that a majority of us want to leave the League, and that should be enough for our law-makers to start work on making the changes required.

Socrates: Brexit, you asked me if I was an opponent of democracy, but now I see that it is you who wish to bring democracy into disrepute.

Brexit: What on earth do you mean, Socrates? My intention is the very opposite.

Socrates: When I asked you to give me the reason that your city wishes to leave the League, we came to the conclusion that there was no one reason, but that the democratic decision of the citizens was enough. Now, doesn’t that imply that the rule of the people amounts to doing whatever the people want, irrespective of whether their wishes are reasonable or not? Suppose that your people were asked whether they wanted to keep taxation or abolish it, what would they vote?

Brexit: That is hardly the same sort of question, Socrates. But, obviously, they would vote to abolish taxation, because they hate to have what is theirs taken away from them.

Socrates: Whereas they ought to vote to keep taxation, not because they like it or want it, but because there is a very good reason for paying taxes, which is that they support a government that arranges security, justice, education and the distribution of resources. Likewise, when it comes to politics, we all ought to vote, not for what we individually want or like, but for what makes most sense for the prosperity of the whole community. Democracy is only a good form of government when it is beneficial for the community as a whole. Otherwise, it is no better than the rule of a tyrant, who only wishes to benefit himself.

Brexit: But, Socrates, it is just because we want the prosperity of the whole community that I and most of my fellow citizens wish to leave the League!

Socrates: Just now you told me that it does not matter if you can give no reason for your city to leave the League, because a majority vote is enough, but now you tell me that your decision is reasonable after all. Are you now saying, Brexit, that whatever is best for the prosperity of the whole community is what you should want and vote for?

Brexit: Yes, of course, that goes without saying.

Socrates: And what is best for the whole community is not what is of benefit only to individuals, because they want it or like it, like paying no taxes?

Brexit: Where is this all going, Socrates?

Socrates: Well, it seems we agree that a political decision should not be the product of personal desires, and we also agree that there would be a reason for your city to leave the League, if it was the case that doing so would increase the happiness and prosperity of the whole community. But, Brexit, from what you have said, everyone in your city has voted according to their own personal opinions, which differ, so that you can only guess at the reasons many of your fellow citizens have voted the way they have. It seems to me that your city does not have a single reason for leaving the League, and the individual citizens have their own views about what will be for the greater prosperity of the whole.

Grexit: If I may interrupt here, my friends, surely one could argue that, irrespective of these fine points of reasoning, the government of Brexit’s city were elected on the promise of a referendum which, they said, would determine the city’s future membership of the Spartan League. So now they have an obligation to follow through on the result of that referendum, just as if one of us were to make a promise and were then held to it by our friends. The keeping of promises is necessary for there to be trust among human beings, and it is a foundation of life in civilised society.

Socrates: Do you agree, Brexit? Had the result of the referendum been the opposite one, would you hold, as Grexit has explained, that your government has an obligation to fulfil its promise, even though that would be the very opposite of what you yourself believed?

Brexit: I feel that whatever I say now, Socrates, I am done for.

Socrates: Please, Brexit, I am simply asking you questions. If you were to hold that your government had an obligation to fulfil its promise, and at the same time you held that if it were to do so, it would be acting to bring about the impoverishment and unhappiness of your community, wouldn’t you find yourself in a difficult situation? And by your own account you have admitted that many of your fellowe citizens, holding a view different to your own about what is in your community’s best interest, will now find themselves in just such a state. It seems to me, Brexit, that we are never obliged to do what we believe to be wrong, even though we made a promise to do so, and I am sure you would agree.

Brexit: But if you are right, how on earth can we ever come to a decision about whether or not to leave the League?

Grexit: My friend, your government could call a general election, with the instruction to the citizens of your city to elect representatives according to their stated view on membership of the League. In this way, the new government would have no doubt about whether or not it should change the law, and it would not need to ask its people by means of a referendum.

Brexit: But the people have already decided what they believe!

Socrates: I am wondering, my friends, whether referendums and elections can ever replace reason and debate for communities wishing to live together in peace. But that is a topic for another time. Brexit, I wish your city well in its deliberations; and, Grexit, do be careful to think for yourself…

Pyrrho and the Buddha: Reasons to be Sceptical

Greek Buddha cover

Christopher Beckwith, Greek Buddha: Pyrrho’s Encounter with Early Buddhism in Central Asia, Princeton University Press, 2015.

my review copied over from Western Buddhist Review

Classical sources tell us that a young man named Pyrrho travelled with Alexander the Great and his army to north-west India in 324 bce. During their Indian sojourn, Pyrrho and his teacher, Anaxarchus, met Indian gymnosophists, ‘naked wise men’, and it is said that Pyrrho’s philosophy developed as a result of such meetings. When he returned to India, Pyrrho is said to have taught a philosophical ethics, in the sense of how to live the best and happiest kind of life, in terms of the ideals of apatheia, ‘being without passion’, and ataraxia, ‘undisturbedness, calm’. The way to these ideals is said to consist in a form of scepticism about the knowledge gained through sense perception and thought; rather than believe we might be able to attain certainty we should refrain from doxai, ‘beliefs’ or ‘opinions’, but maintain equanimity and hence undisturbedness.

The questions naturally arise of what Pyrrho might have learned from Indian thinkers, and whether his philosophy was perhaps inspired by Buddhists that he met in ancient Gandhāra. Unfortunately, answers to such questions are difficult. Pyrrho himself did not write down his philosophy, and what we know about it consists in fragmentary quotations from the writings of his pupil, Timon, plus various anecdotes and lesser fragments. Moreover, there is uncertainty about how to interpret these quotes and fragments. And there is no direct evidence at all for what, if anything, Pyrrho learned in India. Nevertheless, modern scholars like Thomas McEvilley and Adrian Kuzminski have found close parallels between Pyrrhonian scepticism and Buddhist Madhyamaka thought, with precedents in earlier Buddhist scriptures.[1] Take for example the following verses from the Aṭṭhakavagga of the Sutta-nipāta, regarded as one of the earliest records of the Buddha’s teaching:

They do not formulate, they do not prefer:

they have not accepted any doctrines.

A brahman is not reckoned by virtue or vows.

Such a one, gone to the far shore, does not come back.[2]

In such teachings, as in later Madhyamaka, and as in Pyrrho, we see that the path of not holding to views and opinions is said to lead beyond suffering. Pyrrho, it would seem, may have brought the Buddha’s middle way philosophy back to Greece.

This is the exciting field of investigation into which Christopher Beckwith’s Greek Buddha enters. Beckwith takes up the themes just outlined and runs with them – sometimes a very long way. The results are in my view mixed, some excellent and profound, some silly and self-contradictory. Beckwith comes across as one of those lone scholars, riding off into new territory alone and coming back with new insights, but out of kilter with everyone else.

I’ll start with the excellent bits in this book. Beckwith takes up the theme of interpreting the rather difficult Greek quotations of Timon’s account of Pyrrho’s philosophy. His book includes, as an Appendix, an article previously published in Elenchos (2011) on ‘The Classical Testimonies of Pyrrhos’ Thought’. His insights about how to understand some difficult words have evidently already become influential.[3] In Chapter One of the new book, Beckwith draws out the connection between Pyrrho’s thought and Buddhism. According to Timon, Pyrrho taught that:

As for pragmata ‘matters, questions, topics’, they are all adiaphora ‘undifferentiated by a logical differentia’ and astathmēta ‘unstable, unbalanced, not measurable’ and anepikrita ‘unjudged, unfixed, undecidable’. Therefore, neither our sense-perceptions nor our ‘views, theories, beliefs’ (doxai) tell us the truth or the lie [about pragmata]. Rather, we should be adoxatous, ‘without views’, aklineis ‘uninclined [towards this side or that]’, and akradantous ‘unwavering [in our refusal to choose]’, saying about every single one that it no more is that it is not or it both is and is not or it neither is nor is not.[4]

Beckwith notes that the usual English translation of pragmata, ‘things’, misleadingly leads us to think that Pyrrho’s point refers to physical objects, whereas in fact pragmata are ‘(ethical) matters’. Pyrrho’s thought concerns the nature and characteristics of pragmata like anger or joy, not the nature and characteristics of air or rock. Beckwith goes on to compare the concept of pragmata with the Buddhist concept of dharmas, often translated ‘mental objects’, which are said to have ‘three characteristics’ (trilakṣana). He draws out how Pyrrho’s three characteristics of pragmata map onto the Buddhist three characteristics of dharmas:

(i) adiaphora means ‘undifferentiated by a logical differentia’ in the sense of ‘without a logical self-identity’ – this is comparable to the anātman or ‘without fixed self’ characteristic of dharmas.

(ii) astathmēta means ‘unstable, unbalanced, not measureable’ in the sense of ‘unbalanced, uneasy’ – this is comparable to the duḥkha or ‘uneasy, painful, unsatisfactory’ characteristic of dharmas.

(iii) anepikrita means ‘unjudged, unfixed, undecidable’ in the sense that pragmata are not permanently decided or fixed – this is comparable to the anitya or ‘impermanent’ characteristic of dharmas.

This work of careful comparison is immensely stimulating and, as far as I know, original. Beckwith goes on to outline the apparent similarity of Pyrrho’s philosophical path and the goal of apatheia or ‘passionlessness’ to the Buddhist middle way and the goal of nirvāṇa, although a great deal more on this topic could have been said.

But just as he opens up this quite fascinating field of comparative thought through the careful study of words and ideas, Beckwith manages to veer off into scholarly fantasy of the most disreputable kind. To take a small example: in order to make his point about the similarity of the astathmēta ‘unstable, uneasy’ characteristic of pragmata to the duḥkha characteristic of dharmas, Beckwith takes to task the way Buddhist scholars have translated duḥkha: ‘the term is perhaps the most misunderstood – and definitely the most mistranslated – in Buddhism’ (p.29). Never mind what anyone else says, Beckwith proposes that duḥkha is a Prakritisation of Sanskrit duḥstha, literally ‘standing badly’, hence ‘unsteady’ and ‘uneasy’, so that, as he tells us, Pyrrho’s astathmēta is ‘in origin a simple calque [loan translation]’ (p.30). However, according to Margaret Cone’s Dictionary of Pāli, there is indeed a Pāli word duṭṭha (the Pāli equivalent of Sanskrit duḥ-stha) that means ‘uneasy, unhappy’,[5] but nobody seems ever to have confused this word with dukkha, with its (untranslatable) range of meaning, from ‘pain’ through ‘suffering’ to ‘unsatisfactoriness’. Beckwith’s proposal is just wish-fulfilment. This does not exclude the possibility, of course, that Pyrrho might have been translating a difficult Buddhist concept into a Greek equivalent as best he could.

I’ve outlined Beckwith’s main proposal about to some hitherto-unrecognised similarities between Pyrrho’s thought and Buddhism, suggesting that Pyrrho learned about Buddhism in India. Beckwith’s book, however, concerns not only this proposal but a re-thinking of the whole nature of early Buddhism that his proposal suggests. This re-thinking depends upon his employment of a particular method of investigation:

My approach in the book is to base all of my main arguments on hard data – inscriptions, datable manuscripts, other dated texts, and archaeological reports. I do not allow traditional belief to determine anything in the book, so I have necessarily left the topic out, other than to mention it briefly in a few places’ (p.xiii).

What this method means in practice is that Beckwith ignores Buddhism as a source of knowledge about Buddhism. For Buddhists, knowledge of early Buddhism comes from the records of the teaching of the Buddha preserved in Pāli and other languages, that were preserved orally at first and then in written form. The degree to which these records are accurate is uncertain, but Buddhist textual scholarship continues to sift and argue about what might count as earlier and later doctrines. Beckwith’s method is to totally ignore Buddhist texts and base his investigation on ‘hard data’. The result is silly and self-contradictory.

According to Beckwith, the earliest reliable evidence (‘hard data’) for early Buddhism is the records of visiting Greeks, especially Megasthenes, who visited the court of Candragupta Maurya in 305 bce, and whose observations have survived as quotations in Strabo’s work on geography. Megasthenes described Brāhmaṇas (‘Brachmanes’) and Śramanas (‘Sarmanes’) and some of their habits and beliefs. Unfortunately Megasthenes does not specifically mention Buddhists, and one can imagine that as a visiting Greek he may not have easily been able to differentiate Buddhist monks from other participants in the Indian religious scene. Beckwith, however, in a marvellous feat of self-justification, proposes that Pyrrho’s philosophy (as interpreted by Beckwith) is in fact an even older piece of evidence for early Buddhism (p.62), and he goes on to solve various difficulties in interpreting Megasthenes using his own version of Pyrrho and hence early Buddhism. A taste of the silliness involved: the Buddha was not Indian, but Scythian, which explains why he was called ‘Śākyamuni’, the sage of the Śakas (i.e. Scythian). The Buddha’s Scythian (i.e. Iranian) origin involved his exposure to Zoroastrian ideas about escatology and monotheism, hence the Buddha’s introduction of his modification and rejection of these ideas into India. Early Buddhism hence has nothing to do with Brahmanism or the Upaniṣads, which are Indian. Later Buddhist tradition (which Beckwith calls ‘Normative Buddhism’ though he does not explain why) made up all the stories about the Buddha’s life in India and all the encounters with Brahmanas and other Indian thinkers.

In fact there is some interesting scholarship on the topic of the Buddha’s possible Scythian origins: Jayarava has written about how the Buddha’s tribe may have been called ‘Śākya’ just because they were ‘of the Śakas’, i.e. Scythians, who had migrated into northern India in the preceding centuries, possibly bringing with them some Zoroastrian ideas that may still be visible in the background of the Buddha’s teaching.[6] But Beckwith does not engage with this kind of scholarship. There is a sort of wilful perversity in the way he pushes on with his ideas, despite what anyone else might think. There is self-contradiction at the heart of it all too. In Chapter Four we discover that Beckwith himself is a sceptic of the Pyrrhonian sort. He values the Pyrrhonian rejection of perfectionist and absolutist thinking, in favour of the putting aside of fixed views and the embracing of a sceptical method that leads towards a calmer appreciation of what really is. Robert Ellis over at the Middle Way Society has reviewed Beckwith’s book very positively from this philosophical angle, and his perspective helped keep me reading when the book’s silliness was getting too much.[7] Nevertheless, Beckwith’s own method, far from being Pyrrhonian, is an example of dogmatic scepticism at its worst, that is, the kind of scepticism which looks at the evidence and concludes that we can know nothing. In this way, Beckwith’s method of dogmatically ignoring Buddhism as a source of knowledge about Buddhism is self-contradictory.

Buddhist texts are indeed the product of various times and concerns, and hence it is not easy to determine what in them might really go back to the time of the Buddha. Nevertheless, it is dogmatic to conclude that we should therefore ignore the whole of Buddhism in trying to understand early Buddhism. By contrast, a truly Pyrrhonian approach to the scholarly study of early Buddhism might consist in continually examining our views and beliefs as we study our texts, without supposing that we will ever really know for certain what the Buddha taught. This continual examination should involved us in questioning the dogmatism involved in our methods.

Beckwith’s dogmatic method in fact misses out on some nice evidence for what looks like Pyrrhonian scepticism in the Pāli canon. In one discourse in the Aṅguttara-nikāya,[8] the layman Anāthapiṇḍika talks to some ‘wanderers of other sects’ who want to know about the Buddha’s views and theories. Anāthapiṇḍika does not presume to tell them what the Buddha thinks, but gets the wanderers to tell him what they think. They hold different kinds of views: that the world is eternal, not eternal, finite, infinite, that the body and soul are the same, or different, that the tathāgata, the ‘realized person’, exists after death, or doesn’t, or both, or neither – the standard formula for a range of metaphysical views. Anāthapiṇḍika then tells them what he believes: that all these views have arisen through careless attention or another’s utterance, that these views are conditioned (saṅkhatā), a product of volition (formed in the mind) (cetayitā), dependently arisen (paṭiccasamuppannā), hence impermanent, hence unsatisfactory, and therefore those views are unsatisfactory (dukkha here has the connotation of ‘wrong’). Having clearly seen this, one will understand the non-self characteristic and the escape from dukkha.

In the following discourse,[9] these wanderers say that the Buddha is a nihilist (venayika) and one who refrains from making declarations (appaññattika). The Greeks no doubt criticized Pyrrho on similar grounds, understanding his scepticism to result in vagueness and ethical passivity. The question arises, for both Pyrrho and for the Buddha, of what is a criterion for practical judgement if all views and opinions should be put aside. Pyrrho scholar Richard Bett discusses some disputed lines attributed to Pyrrho which put forward what may record his view on this matter:[10]

For I will say, as it appears to me to be,

A word of truth, having a correct standard:

That the nature of the divine and the good is at any time

That from which life becomes most even-tempered for a man.

These lines suggest that for Pyrrho the standard for judging the good is not a matter of view or belief, it is not a based on a theory, but rather it is based on a continual empirical judgement of what helps make human life more ‘even-tempered’. Unfortunately, we do not have any further information about Pyrrho’s thought here. However, the discourse from the Pāli canon just discussed includes the Buddha’s standard or criterion for judgements about the good. In response to the wanderers’ complaint that the Buddha was a nihilist and one who refrains from making declarations, the householder Vijjamāhita tells them:

The Blessed One has validly declared, “This is wholesome (kusala)” and, “This is unwholesome (akusala)”. Thus, when he declares what is wholesome and what is unwholesome, the Blessed One makes definite declarations. He is not a nihilist who refrains from making declarations.

For the Buddha, the distinction of wholesome (kusala, what is good) and unwholesome is the basis for practical judgements about how to live, and the enquiry into what is wholesome continues into the investigation of mental states in meditation and eventually into insight investigations into the nature of things. In this way, we can see further parallels between Pyrrho’s philosophy in the surviving fragments and the Buddha’s teaching as recorded in the Pāli canon. These kinds of parallels add to those noticed between Madhyamaka, Proto-Madhyamaka and Pyrrhonian scepticism, and to those explored by Christopher Beckwith in his new book.

[1] Thomas McEvilley, The Shape of Ancient Thought: Comparative Studies in Greek and Indian Philosophies, Allworth Press: New York, 2002, p.450ff; and Adrian Kuzminski, Pyrrhonism: How the Ancient Greeks Reinvented Buddhism, Lexington Books: Lanham, 2008. Beckwith does not really discuss either of these works.

[2] Verse 803, my translation of: na kappayanti na purekkharonti / dhammā pi tesaṃ na paṭicchitāse / na brāhmaṇo sīlavatena neyyo / pāraṃgato na pacceti tādī. Louis Gomez has already discussed the apparent similarity of these early teachings to later Madhyamaka, in ‘Proto-Mādhyamika in the Pāli canon’, Philosophy East and West, 1976 (26:2), pp.137–65, which Beckwith discusses.

[3] See the references to Beckwith’s article in the Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy, q.v. ‘Pyrrho’ at

[4] Beckwith’s translation of Eusebius, p.23.

[5] Margaret Cone, Dictionary of Pāli, vol.2, PTS: Bristol, 2010, p.414.

[6] Jayarava Attwood, ‘Possible Iranian Origins for the Śākyas and Aspects of Buddhism’, Journal of the Oxford Centre for Buddhist Studies, 2012 (3), pp.47–69.


[8] Aṅguttara-nikāya 10:93 in Bhikkhu Bodhi’s translation, Numerical Discourses of the Buddha, Wisdom: Boston, 2012, pp.1464–7.

[9] Aṅguttara-nikāya 10:94 in Bhikkhu Bodhi’s translation, Numerical Discourses of the Buddha, Wisdom: Boston, 2012, pp.1467–70.

[10] Discussed in the Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy, q.v. ‘Pyrrho’ at

The Universe Is Waking Up


A review of Thomas Nagel Mind and Cosmos: Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature is Almost Certainly False

Oxford University Press, 2012, 130pp.

Thomas Nagel is an American professor of philosophy, perhaps best known for his 1974 article, ‘What is it like to be a bat?’, in which he argued that consciousness, as is occurs in creatures like bats and human beings, means having a point of view on things.[1] There is something it is like to have conscious experience, even if we cannot imagine exactly what it is like, as in the case of bats, which use echo-location to find their way around and to catch their food. Hence there are facts about the world, that there is something it is like to be a bat, which we cannot even imagine. This point leads to Nagel’s conclusion, which is to highlight the difficulty of supposing that we could explain the subjective nature of conscious experience in terms of objective properties, like brains and neurons. Such an attempt to explain the mind in terms of the brain would be reductionist in the sense that it would involve a reduction of mental properties to physical properties. But such a reduction is not possible in this case. Following Nagel, the mind–body problem in philosophy gained new significance. David Chalmers has argued that consciousness constitutes a ‘hard problem’ for philosophy.[2] Colin McGinn has argued that, because of human cognitive limitations, we are not able to understand how subjective experience is related to objective properties, and that consciousness will remain a mystery.[3] Other philosophers, such as Daniel Dennet, believe on the contrary that consciousness can be accommodated within a materialistic world-view.

Scientists, it must be said, are more concerned about their research than these difficult philosophical problems. Nevertheless there are plenty of neuroscientists who also admit they have no idea how the brain ‘produces’ conscious experience. Thomas Nagel’s most recent book, Mind and Cosmos, starts from these familiar conundrums of the mind–body problem, and goes on to question the whole neo-Darwinian world-view, which tries to explain nature in terms of physical matter and forces interracting to produce the world of life and of human experience. The slightly sensational sub-title for this book, Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature is Almost Certainly False, is presumably the publisher’s way of grabbing attention, and shows that the book is aimed at a non-specialist readership. What Nagel really argues, however, is that the materialist Neo-Darwinian conception of nature is partial rather than false, because it cannot adequately explain the appearance of consciousness. What would be false, in this view, would not be the materialist Neo-Darwinian conception of nature but the metaphysical claim that materialism can completely explain everything.

Nagel’s basic argument is this. If materialism cannot explain consciousness, then materialism cannot be a complete explanation of the natural order. This argument is more interesting than it looks. It is perhaps easy to suppose that we could fully explain the beginning of the universe in terms of matter and forces and so on. But if the arising of life and subsequently consciousness cannot be explained in terms of matter and forces – that is, that life and consciousness are not susceptible to reductionist explanations – then materialism has not explained the natural order. Life and consciousness must always have been possibilities within the natural order, even before the conditions for their actual arising were not fully present. Therefore materialism is not a complete theory. Nagel does not stop there. In a chapter on ‘Cognition’, he goes on to argue that the faculty of reason, by which he means the capacity (for a few of us) to intuit truths that are independent of the mind, such as mathematical or logical truths, cannot be explained by evolutionary theory alone. Neo-Darwinian theory must explain the appearance of faculties such as reason as somehow adaptive, but we cannot explain the capacity for insight into the truth in terms of adaptation for survival. And in a chapter on ‘Value’ Nagel argues that our capacity to make correct moral judgements is based on the objectivity of good and bad, it being an objective matter that certain actions are good and certain bad, which is similarly inexplicable in terms of materialism alone. For each of these broad areas – consciousness, cognition and value – Nagel sketches what might count as more satisfactory explanatory theories. One such sort of theory would be intentional – that God has set up the natural order is such a way that there is consciousness, that we can intuit the truth and know good and bad. But Nagel does not explore intentional theories as he does not believe in God. He plays with panpsychism – the theory that mind is somehow in everything – but does not find this kind of metaphysical theory very useful. His preferred tentative solution is what he calls ‘teleological naturalism’, meaning the theory that the natural order is biased in some way towards the emergence of life and consciousness, as more-than-likely directions or potentials of development. He does not develop this theory but merely indicates that it might at least be along the right lines.

It has to be said that Nagel’s book has received some very critical reviews.[4] This is partly because of the polarised nature of debate in the US. Nagel’s denial of neo-Darwinian evolutionary theory plays straight into the hands of Creationists, who seem to eagerly seize on any criticism of evolution. It has to be said that, although Nagel clearly states that he is an atheist, he also tells the reader how stimulating he finds the work of Michael Behe and Stephen Beyer, two prominent exponents of intelligent design theories for the origin of life.[5] Sometimes intellectual openness can be a political mistake. Professional scientists and philosophers have also criticised Nagel’s book in different ways, because it does not take into account the kinds of details which are important in the disciplines in which these people work. However, Nagel’s book is meant to be a readable book exploring big issues. Nevertheless, it must be said that Nagel does not make any attempt to present or answer quite reasonable philosophical objections to some of what he puts forward, perhaps especially in relation to the idea that moral values are objective.

Nevertheless, I think Nagel’s book is of great interest for western Buddhists, because it puts forward a critique of, and ideas for alternatives to, the predominant materialist worldview of our times. Nagel’s starting point is not simply that he finds materialism partial or unconvincing, but that he himself has a metaphysical view or vision of reality that just cannot be accommodated within materialism. This vision is that the appearance of conscious beings in the universe is somehow what it is all for; that ‘Each of our lives is a part of the lengthy process of the universe gradually waking up and becoming aware of itself’.[6] Nagel’s surrounding argument is something of a sketch, but is entirely compatible with a Buddhist vision of reality as naturalism, including the possibility of insight into reality (under the topic of reason or cognition) and the possibility of apprehension of objective good (under the topic of value). His naturalism does this while fully conceding the explanatory power of physics, Darwinian evolution and neuroscience.[7] Most Buddhists are what one might describe as intuitive non-materialists, but they have no way to integrate their intuition into the predominantly materialistic scientific world view. I see the value of Nagel’s philosophy in Mind and Cosmos as sketching an imaginative vision of reality that integrates the scientific world view into a larger one that includes reason, value and purpose, and simultaneously casts philosophical doubt on the completeness of the predominant materialism of the age.

[1] Thomas Nagel, ‘What is it like to be a bat?’ in The Philosophical Review 83:4 (1974), pp.435–50.

[2] David Chalmers, ‘Facing up to the problem of consciousness’ in Journal of Consciousness Studies, 2:3 (1995), pp.200–19.

[3] Colin McGinn, ‘Can we solve the mind-body problem?’ in Mind 98 (1989), pp.349–66. McGinn has also written a work of popular philosophy on the problem of consciousness: The Mysterious Flame: conscious minds in a material world, New York: Basic Books, 1999.

[5] Mind and Cosmos p.10, and see the footnote there for references to works by Behe and Beyer.

[6] Mind and Cosmos p.85.

[7] This point is important, however, for emphasising that consciousness depends on the body and brain, and ceases when they cease functioning. While the Buddhist tradition, in line with most non-scientific thinking, assumes the possibility of some sort of disembodied consciousness, the Buddha himself appeared to deny it, as I discuss in Dhivan Thomas Jones, This Being, That Becomes: the Budha’s teaching of conditionality, Cambridge: Windhorse, 2011, p.67f.

The ‘Five Niyamas’ and Natural Order

laws of nature

This post might be mainly of interest to people in the Triratna Buddhist Order and community as it assumes some prior knowledge about Sangharakhita’s teaching about the ‘five niyamas’. Sangharakshita’s teaching was presented by Subhuti in a new way in his 2010 paper, ‘Revering and Relying Upon the Dharma’.[i] However, according to my understanding of the Pāli language and the Theravādin commentarial tradition, the word niyama does not mean what Sangharakshita or Subhuti take it to mean, and Sangharakshita’s list of five niyamas is a creative re-interpretation of Mrs Rhys-Davids’ creative mis-interpretation of what the commentators say.[ii] I have explored all this in an article on ‘The Five Niyāmas as Laws of Nature’, published in the Journal of Buddhist Ethics, but I will not repeat anything of that here.[iii] In this post I want instead to engage in a philosophical re-interpretation of Sangharakshita’s ideas about the ‘five niyamas’ in terms of natural order. My aim is to clarify some of the philosophical and metaphysical claims implied by the Buddhist teaching of conditionality.

In an earlier post,[iv] I made the claim that Buddhism is a form of naturalism. The Dharma is the Buddha’s teaching, but the word also refers to immanent natural order in the universe and in human life.[v] The basic principle of this natural order is, according to the Buddha, paṭicca-samuppāda or dependent-arising, the principle that things arise on conditions and cease with the cessation of those conditions. We can talk about paṭicca-samuppāda simply as ‘conditionality’.

Now I would like to rectify some terms. When we say that conditionality is a principle of natural order, the word ‘order’ refers to the regulated condition, the fixed arrangement found in the existing state of things, in nature.[vi] However, when Sangharakshita writes about the ‘five niyamas’ as ‘five orders of conditionality’, he is using the word ‘order’ to mean grades in an ordered or hierarchical structure, characterized by sequence.[vii] But this ambiguous use of the word ‘order’ covers up an important point, which is that conditionality as such, that is, the principle of natural order, is not characterized by grades or any hierarchical structure; rather, it is simply the principle that characterizes reality. There is just one principle of conditionality, metaphysically speaking. However, this principle describes the arising and ceasing of conditioned things, and so we could perhaps speak of various grades in an ordered structure of paṭicca-samuppannā dhammā, or ‘dependently-arisen phenomena’. So the ‘five orders of conditionality’ might more accurately be understood to mean ‘five orders or grades of conditioned phenomena’, all equally subject to the one principle of conditionality or natural order.

However, the idea of ‘five orders of conditioned phenomena’ itself creates a philosophical problem. It ought to mean that there are five kinds of dependently-arisen things, five domains of reality. But reality is not like this. Reality, as far as we know anything about it, is not divisible into five parts but is a whole which consists in a seamless web of everything. Of course there are different kinds of things – stars, mangoes, Buddhists, words – but the categorical distinctions between things are made by human minds as they try to categorise what they perceive and think about. The ‘five orders of conditionality’, then, are more like five kinds of natural law, five different sets of laws used to describe the observable regularities within the arising and ceasing of conditioned phenomena. Laws are products of thought, so if the ‘five orders of conditionality’ are really five kinds of natural law, the important implication follows that the distinction of five kinds of law is a conventional rather than absolute distinction, the creation of human thought rather than being part of nature. It is probably possible to have a list of three kinds of law, or six, or ten. But Sangharakshita’s list of five has a certain integrity that is satisfying to the mind.

What are these five kinds of natural law? The first is physical law, describing matter and forces and so on. The second is biological law, describing living organisms. The third is psychological law, describing non-deliberate mental processes such as perception and identity. We might consider psychological and biological laws in some sense to be reducible to physics; or we might prefer to understand biological and psychological laws to be irreducible, and to view them as emergent properties of the working-out of increasingly complex physical laws. These are large philosophical issues. In either case, the stage is set for the remaining two kinds of law, which are both distinctive productions of the Buddhist experience: the law of karma, and finally the Dharma itself, understanding the word ‘Dharma’ here in the particular sense of those teachings concerning the way to liberation.[viii]

So the so-called ‘five niyamas’ turn out to be five kinds of laws which describe the arising and ceasing of conditioned phenomena comprehended within the principle of conditionality. Since natural laws as such are human productions of thought, there being five kinds of law is simply a convention, a way of putting things. On the other hand, there being a law of karma and there being a Dharma in the sense of a teaching of the way beyond the world of experience, reveals the full scope of natural order in the Buddhist world view. This world view includes, under the idea of a law of karma, a conception of ethical recompense integral to the workings of nature. I am aware that the traditional Buddhist teachings on the law of karma are far from intelligible within a scientific world view. However, we can reduce the religious teachings on karma to two ideas which are highly intelligible: first, that ethical judgements can be objective, and, second, that we can reach these ethical judgements as part of our reflection on natural order. That is to say, good and bad, right and wrong, are neither subjective and relative, nor transcendent and absolute, but emerge as natural properties of reality. Finally, the Buddhist world view includes a soteriology or doctrine of salvation, under the idea of the dharma as the teaching of the way leading beyond ordinary experience to liberation and nirvana, which is yet comprehended within the idea of nature as a whole. That is to say, liberation is neither a matter of non-natural grace nor of chance mysticism. Hence, the Buddhist conception of a natural order, that is, its conception of Dharma as immannent natural order in the universe, includes physical, biological and psychological descriptions of a dependently-arisen reality, as well as ethical and soteriological teachings concerning the possibilities of human experience as part of nature. This is the full scope of Buddhist naturalism.

[ii] All the Pāli source texts pertaining to the ‘five niyamas’ have been usefully translated by Jayarava at

[v] See Margaret Cone, The Dictionary of Pāli, vol.II, dhamma, 3(i), q.v.

[vi] See OED, order, q.v.: ‘III. Sequence, disposition, or arrangement; arranged or regulated condition’, especially ‘15. the fixed arrangement found in the existing state of things; a natural, moral, spiritual, or social system in which things proceed according to definite, established, or constituted laws.’

[vii] See OED, order, q.v.: ‘I. Any of the grades or ranks in an ordered or hierarchical structure (characterized by sequence)’, especially ‘3. A rank, row, or series.’ The OED lists a remaining meaning of ‘order’, viz.: ‘II. A rank or class of people or things’, as in the Triratna Buddhist Order.

[viii] See The Dictionary of Pāli, vol. II, dhamma, 1(ii), (iii), (iv), q.v.

Dependent-Arising as Pagan Philosophy


In this essay, I will explore how the core Buddhist teaching of dependent-arising (paṭicca-samuppāda) is a form of naturalism, meaning that everything arises from natural causes and conditions, including everything in human experience. This naturalism is fundamentally akin to early Greek science, to early Taoism, and to the Norse concept of wyrd, and hence we can characterise dependent-arising as a form of pagan philosophy, understanding the term ‘paganism’ to encompass all kinds of non-theistic religion, not just those traditions traditionally called ‘pagan’. Such a broad characterisation of dependent-arising allows us to appreciate the framework of thought in which the Buddha’s teaching works.

Pagan philosophising arises out of its own cultural context of myth, ritual and speculation. In the background of the Buddha’s teaching is the Vedic religion of India, in which even the gods were subject to cosmic order (ṛta, and later dharma), and sacrificial ritual became the technology for manipulating natural order. In ancient Greek myth, in Homer for instance, even all-powerful Zeus must obey Necessity (ananke), and this conception of a non-divine natural order led to the Greek philosophers’ quest for rational principles.

Philosophy sifts principles from the turbid play of the mind. The core principle of the Buddha’s teaching, called the Dharma (or dhamma), is paṭicca-samuppāda, dependent-arising, which the Buddha expressed in a terse formula:[1]

This being, that becomes; from the arising of this, that arises.
This not being, that does not become; from the ceasing of this, that ceases.

This formulation of the Dharma is an entirely abstract formula, awaiting application and content, but already implies two things about the nature of reality:

(i) universal conditionality, that is, that everything arises on conditions, and

(ii) the contingency of the divine, that is, that the gods also arise on conditions.

We see these implications borne out in other aspects of the Buddha’s teaching. In Buddhist cosmology, for instance, which seems originally to have taken the form of edifying story rather than seriously-held belief, the periodic evolution and involution of the cosmos is total – nothing is left over. And we find parody of the supreme deity, Brahmā, who believes himself immortal, yet really is deluded, since he too has come into existence as a result of his past actions.[2]

There is a saying attributed to the Buddha that ‘Who sees dependent-arising sees the Dharma, and who sees the Dharma sees dependent-arising’.[3] This saying relies on word-play, since the word Dharma means both the nature of reality and the teaching of the Buddha. So someone who ‘sees’, that is, understands, dependent-arising understands the teaching of the Buddha, and who understands the nature of reality understands this formulation of dependent-arising. But this saying also implies another, more philosophical, distinction between dependent-arising as principle and Dharma as nature. This distinction parallels Spinoza’s distinction of two aspects of reality:[4]

(i) natura naturans – ‘nature naturing’, nature as an active principle of order, and

(ii) natura naturata – ‘nature natured’, nature as the effect of natural order.

We might hence understand dependent-arising as a formulation of the principle of order in nature – which is one meaning of Dharma – and we might understand Dharma to also signify the whole world (including the world of experience) of nature or becoming, which is dependently-arisen, arising according to this principle.

Dependent-arising is therefore the formulation of Dharma as the principle of natural order. This formulation encompasses all particular principles of natural order by which the world of nature comes to be. The distinction between dependent-arising as principle and Dharma as nature is abstract, existing only in thought. In reality, there are only dependently-arisen phenomena, arising and passing away in accordance with an immanent principle of order. Hence the Buddhist worldview is a kind of naturalism, since it posits no power or principle beyond nature itself. This is a non-theistic worldview, in the sense that the powers and divinities that may exist are themselves subject to dependent-arising.

Early Greek science was similarly naturalistic in outlook. The first philosophers sought to identify some fundamental principle (arche) which governs the working of nature, rather than seeking supernatural causes. Thales of Miletus, for instance, identified the principle of nature (physis – physical nature) as water,[5] while Heraclitus identified it as fire.[6] Heraclitus also wrote of a principle of order (logos) according to which all of nature comes into being,[7] a conception much like that of Dharma as dependent-arising. Modern science, since the 17th c., is also naturalistic, seeking the laws and principles that govern nature, but in a methodological rather than metaphysical sense. When it gets metaphysical it tends merely to a sterile materialism, but that is another story.

Early Taoism is naturalistic too. Heaven and earth and the ten thousand things have all emerged from tao or ‘the Way’, which is that mysterious creative principle underlying nature.[8] The Tao Te Ching teaches that wisdom means turning inwards and knowing tao.[9] For Heraclitus, too, wisdom consists in coming to true knowledge of ‘how all things are steered through all’.[10] For the Buddha, it is by not understanding paṭicca-samuppāda that ‘people have become like a tangle of string covered in mould and matted like grass, unable to escape from samsara with its miseries, disasters and bad destinies’.[11] For religious naturalists, much of the difficulty of life is due to our not comprehending the principles of nature to which we are subject, whereas relief and enlightenment arises from insight into them.

Hence we can characterise the Buddha’s teaching as a form of naturalistic or pagan philosophy, as rational reflection on the principles of nature, for the sake of enlightening insight. However, this insight in no way implies a transcendence of nature, for nature is all that there is. It implies instead a turning towards nature, a re-evaluation, and a letting go. What this means and how it is to be done is the stuff of study, reflection and meditation: of philosophy as a way of life. The different traditions of philosophy have, of course, different methods and practices for treading this way. The Buddha’s way (marga) consists in ethics, meditation and wisdom.

If pagan philosophy is not about transcendence, but about understanding the nature of the human condition, then we had better not suppose this can be done simply by rational thought. The Buddha conceptualised the human condition in terms of dependent-arising, but in practice his analyses of the situation, in the formula of the twelve nidānas, merges psychology with cosmology in a way hard to understand. What we seek to understand about life is perhaps more easily comprehended through myth and symbol, for it is only through the engagement of our entire being through the exercise of imagination that we can bring our rational insights to bear on our understanding of the whole.

Dependent-arising implies that human life is a process of becoming, and this becoming has been imagined by later Buddhist tradition as a wheel. The well-known bhavacakra or ‘wheel of becoming’ illustrates the destiny of beings as a result of action (karma) motivated by greed, hate and delusion. Here dependent-arising is represented as operating through time, the future manifestations of beings arising in dependence on past intentional actions. In another development, in the later Avataṃsaka Sūtra, dependent-arising is imagined in spatial terms, as Indra’s net, in which jewels mounted in a net each reflect the image of every other, all phenomena arising in dependence on other phenomena, in an interconnected universe. These symbols, the wheel and the net, illustrate the situation the philosopher seeks to comprehend.

In Greek myth the three Fates (moirae) are said to control the destiny of human beings. Clotho spins the thread of life; Lachesis measures a span; Atropos cuts the thread. The Parcae in Roman mythology have a similar role. In these conceptions, the goddesses represent impersonal yet immanent powers controlling the lives of human beings, according to law-like processes which remain mysterious and ineluctable. In Norse mythology, the three Norns resemble the Fates. But the name of the first and oldest Norn, wyrd (perhaps familiar from the ‘weird sisters’ of Shakespeare’s Macbeth), takes us into a profounder myth. At the centre of the world is Yggdrasil, the Ash, the tree of life. At the foot of Yggdrasil is the well of wyrd. Flowing into the well is the dew of everything that happens in the world, up among the branches of Yggdrasil; liquid from the well waters the tree of life. To comprehend life means to learn the workings of the well of wyrd. But this wyrd is also imagined as a weaving or spinning, an active force that makes destiny. To learn about wyrd is to learn the weaving and unweaving of our becoming.[12]

This myth brings to my mind the Buddha, sitting at the foot of the Bodhi tree in the days immediately after his awakening, when he was contemplating dependent-arising.[13] Taking this as myth and not as history, it means that he saw into the way we human beings weave our own becoming from the thread of intentional actions. He saw too the unweaving that is the hard path out of the suffering of becoming. In his meditation at the foot of the tree of life, he came to know the demon who clutches the wheel of becoming, in the later iconography of Buddhism; which is to say that he came to know the goddess who weaves the interconnected web or net of nature, and learned her secret. This secret, beyond words and concepts, is expressed in different ways by pagan philosophers: as tao, or logos, or Dharma, or wyrd. These conceptions are not the same, and their details vary greatly. Yet they have an underlying structure of meaning. There is an immanent natural order to the universe and human life, which though difficult and mysterious can be discovered and known, and this is what the wise have done, through a process that is both rational and imaginative.

[1] Udāna 1.1–3 etc.

[2] See for instance Brahmajāla Sutta, in Dīgha Nikāya 1, pts D i.17f.

[3] From the Mahāhatthipadopama Sutta, in Majjhima Nikāya 28, pts M i.190–1.

[4] Ethics Book 1, Proposition 29, Schol.

[5] Quoted in Aristotle, Metaphysics, 983b6. Kirk, Raven and Schofield, The Pre-Socratic Philosophers, Cambridge University Press, 1983, p.89.

[6] Fragments 30, 31 and 90. Kirk, Raven and Schofield, p.198.

[7] Fragment 1. Kirk, Raven and Schofield, p.187.

[8] E.g. Tao Te Ching, ch.25.

[9] E.g. Tao Te Ching, ch.41.

[10] Fragment 27. Kirk, Raven and Schofield, p.202.

[11] From the Mahānidāna Sutta, Dīgha Nikāya 15, pts D ii.55.

[12] See Paul Bauschatz, The Well and the Tree: World and Time in Early Germanic Culture, University of Massachusetts Press, 1982.

[13] Udāna 1.1–3 again.